Malaria: a miracle in the making offers hope to millions worldwide

The lives of more than a million children who die each year from malaria could be saved by a new technique for making a drug based on an ancient Chinese herbal remedy first used more than 2,000 years ago.

Scientists said yesterday that the drug will be the first product of a new approach to making pharmaceuticals using "synthetic biology", where genetically engineered microbes with implanted artificial chromosomes, or gene "cassettes", are grown in giant fermenting vats.

The plan is to be able to make enough quantities of the drug in a single fermenter, or bioreactor, within two years to supply the needs of everyone in the world suffering from malaria – up to 500 million people – at a 10th of the cost of existing drugs.

The drug, artemisinin, is based on extracts from the Chinese plant Artemesia annua, or sweet wormwood, which is known to have been used in China as a remedy for malaria fever since at least the second century BC.

Artemisinin is already produced by laboriously extracting it from the dried leaves and flowers of the sweet wormwood, but at more than $2 (£1) for a course of treatment it is too expensive for the majority of people in the developing world who contract malaria from mosquito bites.

Between one and three million people die of malaria every year, 90 per cent of them children under five. The people who survive suffer bouts of severe pain and fever from what has been called one of the biggest sources of misery in the world.

The new way of producing artemisinin involves inserting about a dozen synthetic genes into yeast cells, which are then grown by fermenting them with sugar. The added gene cassettes control the biochemical reactions, or pathway, leading to a precursor chemical, artemisinic acid, which is then converted chemically into the final active ingredient, artemisinin.

By making artemisinin in living yeast cells it is possible to change its biological structure to keep ahead of any future artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria that develop.

Scientists hope that by producing a semi-synthetic form of artemisinin on an industrial scale using a single bioreactor as big as a three-storey town house, they will be able to bring down the price of treatment to less than 20 cents a course, making it the cheapest and most effective anti-malarial drug on the market.

Professor Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, said that the low price and widespread availability of the semi-synthetic drug will directly help millions of sufferers, as well as undermining the counterfeit market in artemisinin, which increases the risk of drug resistance as well as doing little to help malaria patients. "We want it to be affordable to people who need it, to be available to people who need it, and we don't want it to be abused," Professor Keasling said during a two-day conference on synthetic biology at the Royal Society in London.

"The process is very similar to brewing beer... but we're talking about turning on 12 genes simultaneously in the genetically engineered yeast cells and controlling their outputs to balance the metabolic pathway leading to artemisinin," said Professor Keasling. The research pioneered by the professor was funded with the help of a $42.6m research grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is being taken into industrial production with the help of the French company sanofi aventis, which will build a bioreactor in Europe by 2010.

The bioreactor will be between 50,000 and 100,000 litres in size and will produce continuous amounts of the drug in sufficient quantities to treat the 500 million people a year who develop malaria, he said.

Producing semi-synthetic artemisinin on an industrial scale will also undermine speculators who have hoarded stockpiles of the wild plant, raising prices fourfold, since artemisinin was endorsed as the most effective malaria treatment by the WHO in 2004. "We can drive down costs, hitting the market price at its launch and significantly reducing costs further over time," Professor Keasling said.

Taken with other anti-malarial drugs, treatment with artemisinin is said to be almost 100 per cent effective in blocking the life cycle of the malaria parasite within the human body.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

    £34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

    Developer - WinForms, C#

    £280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game